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Page1of 1 Creative Ratios
by Wendy Richmond

It takes Jerry Seinfeld a long time to develop a joke. After he writes many drafts on a yellow pad, he tries the result on a live audience, attuned to any point when their attention strays. Then he reworks it. In a New York Times video describing the development of a line for a joke about Pop-Tarts, he says, “I’m looking for the connective tissue that gives me the really tight, smooth link … and if it’s just a split second too long, you will shave letters off of words, you will count syllables…”

All that work, one little line.

I thought about this while I was researching award-winning social media videos for my previous CA column, “The Long Reach of the Very Short Video.” In a mere six seconds, you can sense the expert preparation. Actors, animators, photographers and writers are bringing their skills and obsessive perfectionism to a new medium. Years of expertise and hours of refinement go into a six-second product.

I find this commitment inspiring. But watching the videos, I remembered Seinfeld and thought, “All that effort, and it’s viewed by an audience for just a few moments!” The example of the six-second video seems extreme, but think about the time you spend reading a poem or standing in front of a sculpture in a gallery. A painting that took months to create is typically looked at for less than a minute.

In other words, the ratio of time spent by an artist building skills and creating work to the time the finished piece is viewed or experienced is, simply, enormous.

Such is the nature of the way we look at art; the gaze is not a long one. This can feel particularly painful in light of our own work. Personally, I find it tough when I have an exhibit and I see how briefly the work is viewed and how short a time it’s being shown, compared to the amount of time it took to develop.

If I ended here, it would be a depressing conclusion. But as I picture the paintings and sculptures and choreography that I love, it occurs to me that I could take the idea of the ratio further, to a more positive, fruitful realm.

Powerful art stays in your memory, your mind’s eye, your psyche. It endures long after the actual viewing, even when that viewing is a matter of minutes. Vija Celmins, a painter, drawer and print-maker, is one of my favorite artists. I’m attracted to both her process and her subject matter, especially her interest in the surface of the ocean, from her early drawings, like Sea Drawing with Whale, circa 1969, to the more recent lithographs, woodcuts and screen prints, like Untitled (Ocean with Cross), from 2005. Even though I’ve only seen her drawings and prints briefly, I can envision them clearly; Celmins’s process—her slow and steady progression, her mastery of different mediums, her commitment to conceptual investigation—has made a deep impact. The amount of time her work has stayed with me is, in a way, reciprocal to her effort. I keep on getting what she has given.

All the work that you did for that one show, that single poster, or that brief poem is in your data bank. Everything you tried, but discarded, is valuable. What a waste it would be if you abandoned it. I’ve taught a class for years in which I ask students to look back at their past work—the material that’s collecting dust under the bed or buried on their hard drives—and lay it all out. Inevitably, they see connections that suggest a direction. A wealth of old ideas is waiting to be expanded into a new work.

I have a friend who was a professional dancer. She recently said to me, “I love the feeling of moving from one room to another.” It’s not just the physical sensation. It’s also the pleasing awareness of her body in relationship to its surroundings: the curved and straight, the hard and soft, the hidden and revealed. Though she no longer dances, she carries her years of training, choreography and technique with her in the simplest, shortest moments.

It’s easy to get distracted by a desire for volume, and to measure the success of work too literally. We mistakenly assume that the best work-to-results ratio is one where “quantity in” is equal to “quantity out.” But I think Vija Celmins had it right when she said, “My favorite thing would be to have a show, then take it down and paint it again. Then show it again, then take it down and paint it again just to readjust it a tiny bit. My wish would be to work on one painting for the rest of my life.” ca

© 2013 W. Richmond Richmond
Wendy Richmond ( is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.